One of my most prosperous potted plants was given to us, tub and all, by a friend. A year later, we were re-potting the star of our garden. To our surprise, the soil had several earthworms—enough to relocate to some of the other tubs. After that, whenever we gave away cuttings, a worm or two went along as a gift!
Why your garden likes worms
Earthworms pamper your garden with vermicompost. This biofertilizer, rich in humus and micronutrients, is essentially worm poop. It is also produced commercially and on a large scale, testimony to its efficacy. You can make some in an at-home worm farm or vermicompost “factory” too. If scatological references make you crinkle your nose, let me assure you, vermicompost is virtually odour-free, even to a sensitive human nose. It does have a distinct smell, but is certainly not unpleasant, merely earthy.
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Vermicompost contains oodles of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which plants love. It also lends the soil texture and structure, aerating it far better than most other products. It also vastly improves the soil’s capacity to cling on to water. And since it includes eggs, the soil continues in good health as new worms are born.
I find that it seems to helps resist pests too. Horticulture specialist Kamla Nath of New Delhi nursery Branching Out says that even Delhi’s scorching summers barely affect plants potted in a vermicompost mix. Being all natural, easy to produce and cost-effective (Rs250 gets you about 50kg), it is popular with organic farmers. It’s also a good lesson in responsible recycling.
What worms want
Once, reporting on solid waste management, I visited one of the pioneers of the system in Delhi. There, in the dining room, stood a little vermicompost factory. I’m glad she insisted I look into the bowl: There were only innocuous dry cast-offs to see, no squelch. But did the worms ever try to wiggle out of the container? Apparently not. Worms generally prefer darkness, though they may try to come out to celebrate the rains, when it is humid.
You could use a large bin, earthen tub or commercial container for your worm farm. Just avoid Styrofoam: It is believed to release toxins. In hot areas, metal may heat up too much and kill the worms. Ask the person who sells you compost or worms for advice.
Try to feed your worms only vegetable waste and dry leaves as meat and dairy putrefy and may encourage fungal growth. The worms aren’t too picky: They don’t mind tea bags, coffee grounds or eggshells. But as the inputs vary based on your household waste, output may vary in the amount and balance of nutrients.
If the mush gets too watery, add shreds of newspaper or sawdust. For anaerobic decomposition, keep the worms in a closed bin, and make sure the mush doesn’t get too hot or too dry. You’ll know by sight when the compost is ready to use. Shake the container gently to see how far down the worms have worked or scrape off an inch or so at a time with a paper or cardboard scoop.
• Limit liquid: Because vermicompost is good at holding on to moisture, you need to be careful of overwatering. If you live in a wetter place, use less vermicompost and more crocks (broken pieces of terracotta) to allow water to filter through. Otherwise, your plants could catch a fungal infection from excess moisture (rule of thumb: Stick yours into the soil to check.)
• Perfect proportions: Vermicompost is easy to use. Mix it with the soil in about 50:50 for most climes, or steep it in water for a few days before adding the liquid to the soil for a nutrient boost. Extreme weather conditions can require a little tweaking: After six years of experimenting with vermicompost, Nath finds the optimal combination for Delhi is 30% of worm castings with 20% gobar khaad (cowdung manure), sterilized to get rid of termites and other pests, mixed with about 40% soil and 10% leaf mould.
• Specify species: Even among earthworms, some are more equal than others. If buying your first batch of worms (rather than rooting in your yard for the garden variety), ask for brandling worms (Eisenia foetida) and red earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus).
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
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